09/13/2010 09:21 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is There Really Such a Thing as 'Normal?'

I've heard it a million times and it drives me nuts. "Donna, you're not normal." I heard it in school, I hear it at work and I hear it in my personal life all the time too. But what does that mean?

Years back, I used to think that "different" meant "bad," as most children do. But as I've gotten older, I've come to realize that we use the term loosely without really understanding it. Here is a case in point: I do a fair amount of speaking about learning disabilities in the workplace due to my own personal experience (and struggle) with dyslexia. During my research for a corporate speech, I came across the following statement on a website for an organization known as The Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities, otherwise known in short as, CCLD.

They say, "A learning disability is a neurobiological disorder in which a person's brain works or is structured differently."

Yeah? And?

And, that was it. No one felt the need to answer, "Different from what?" How is that possible? This is coming from a presumed authority on the topic, yet they failed to distinguish how the disorder deviates away from a norm that they neglect to define. I know they are trying to help. But in fact, they are not. In one way, it's irresponsible to deem something defected and not illuminate what it is being compared against, and in another it does nothing to serve the so-called "disorder," the people labeled with it and those on the outside trying to understand it.

Situations such as these make me think of something one of my college professors once said. It struck me then as it still does today. I was in a gender studies class and we were reading/discussing the chapter on homosexuality. The textbooks were citing mounds of research that pursued answers to the question, "Why are so many people gay?" My teacher turned the table on us and posited, "Perhaps we should be asking a different question. Perhaps we should be asking why so many people are straight." I remember feeling confounded and thinking, "Damn, that's a good question."

The prevailing theory is that more people are straight than gay because heterosexuality is presumed to be the "normal" path. We only have to look at the number of anti-gay politicians in Washington who turn out to be gay themselves to see good examples of a model gone wrong. Something forced them away from the truth of who they were and into a life of faking it as "normal men." Now, why is that? Many, like my college professor, would argue that it's the effect of society's stringent standards and expectations that make little-to-no room for alternatives and individuality, despite the fact that we pride ourselves as a country on that very thing. We're fooling ourselves. Maybe, at the end of the day, there is something not so "normal" in thinking that everyone, in the whole wide world, should be the same.

What with the assumption that everyone settle down and have a house with a white picket fence and the divorce rate being what it is, combined with the amount of people who are miserable in their relationships pursuing so-called "normal," one has to wonder how a correlation between being "normal" and unhappy came to be. In my opinion, it's because somewhere along the line someone confused an argument in biology with an argument about love.

It's the same in the world of learning disabilities. Doctors and schools want to treat kids with drugs, and as a result alter the chemicals in their brains in an attempt to make them "normal." But, how scary is that? Particularly if those prescribing what they perceive to be a solution aren't so clear about what normal is in the first place? It reminds me of something another teacher once said to me. He told me that I was lucky. He said that having dyslexia was the biggest gift of my life because my brain could not be forced to conform to normal no matter how hard everyone tried. He encouraged me to look at it as the silver lining to a very difficult situation, which now I do.

Our systems. Our preconceptions. Our herd mentality. They're out of whack. Just because a norm may represent a majority doesn't make it normal, any more than falling to the left or right of a bell curve makes people abnormal. In other words, normal also means common and average. Why would anyone want to strive for that?

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